As John Cusack's character repeatedly tells us in the American film adaptation of Nick Hornby's music-themed novel, High Fidelity, pop music has always been one of life's greatest excuses to retreat into the deepest recesses of one's self. Whether for the purpose of wringing every possible bit of drama out of a failed love affair or inflating our problems beyond any resemblance to reality, self-absorption through music has a long and storied history.
Let's lock ourselves into our figurative rooms and indulge the spoiled brat lacking all perspective in all of us. In no particular order, here are 10 fine '80s songs that have no qualms about indulging in unabashed wallowing.01of 10
Violent Femmes - "Kiss Off"Gordon Gano (l) and Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes onstage in 1985. Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty Images
Leave it to the jittery, frenetic brilliance of one-of-a-kind American college rock trailblazers Violent Femmes to inject something particularly dangerous into self-involved wallowing. Usually, pop music whining can be a bit predictable, but this band has a knack for leaving listeners completely off-balance about what its characters might be up to next. With their usual blend of paranoia and bottled-up anger, the Femmes hurtle toward a crescendo that mirrors the downward spiral of someone who not only threatens suicide but is damn ready to follow through. The classic countdown manages to make frontman Gordon Gano's apparent plight seem far worse than anyone else's. "Everything, everything!"02of 10
Moving Pictures - "What About Me"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic Records
Starting with its perfectly straightforward and universally woe-is-me title, this tune strikes a chord of lyrical bombast that perfectly matches the overwhelming emotions we feel when we lose perspective on our own situations. The one shining moment of this Australian band's brief career, "What About Me" is chock full of memorable lines, ranging from the catchy and highly identifiable chorus to the song's eventual move toward gaining some perspective:
I guess I'm lucky, I've smiled a lot/But sometimes I wish for more… than I've got.
This is a haunting piano power ballad that doesn't quite fit into the typical new wave or arena rock sounds of the early '80s, and it translates that timelessness into a highly emoting classic.03of 10
Gino Vannelli - "Living Inside Myself"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O
This flamboyantly orchestrated soft rock song is such a fist-clencher that it can really only be done justice by a singer with four hands. Equating the loss of love with a personal prison created by himself, Vannelli has fashioned a portrait that is at once familiar and pretty laughable if observed from a distance, but if you allow yourself to step inside that world, you can easily become drenched by an existential flood of self-doubt and desperate confusion. You know how quickly laughter can dissolve into tears.
Despite the dangerous and delicate balance it strikes, this track ultimately rests its significant merits on a permanent, affecting melody. There's not much that rocks about Vannelli's Euro crooning, but it certainly emotes.04of 10
The Police - "Can't Stand Losing You"Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M
Aside from being one of The Police's most criminally underrated singles, this song perfectly encapsulates a rather extreme fantasy that most of us have probably had at one time or another. You know the one; when you approach your beloved in a highly public setting so the world can see you ceremoniously off yourself on account of the hurt and rejection he or she has caused you.
The staccato lurch of this song is a perfect mode of presentation for the lyric, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead, and all this guilt will be on your head." Though it initially appeared on 1978's appropriately titled Outlandos D'Amour, this track enjoyed a summer 1979 rerelease that gives us an excuse to squeeze it on this list.05of 10
Rod Stewart - "Some Guys Have All the Luck"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.
Buoyed by a simple melody that is nothing short of sublime, this Rod Stewart '80s pop classic perfectly captures the "woe-is-me" philosophy when it comes to matters of the heart. "Alone in a crowd," after all, never feels quite as lonely as when heartache has set in and every couple somehow seems like the most blissfully happy romantic pair on the face of the earth.
Stewart takes the mundane happenings of every day and imbues them with an intense longing that comes only from internal sources. Sure, it can be cheesy at times, yet somehow there's something classic and elegant about this performance.06of 10
The Smiths - "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.
Perhaps no '80s band fit better with a locked-in-your-room angsty aesthetic than The Smiths, but lead singer Morrissey - assisted by his plaintive moan - puts things over the top with a delivery that threatens to wrap the listener in a smothering blanket of internalized agony. Throw on top of that slacker lyrics like "I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now," and you have a potentially eye-roll-inducing but simultaneously affecting portrait of enabled despair. This is mesmerizing alternative music drenched in unique post-punk gloom, which is a description that fits the music of The Smiths anyway. However, the precision of Johnny Marr's guitar on this track lays on the mood delightfully thickly.07of 10
Husker Du - "Too Far Down"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.
More of a Bob Mould solo acoustic offering than a full band track, this tune nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. Lyrically, it's probably the most eloquent treatise on suicidal despair in the annals of rock history. Granted, there may not be too many such musical documents, but consider these lines: "When I sit and think, I wish that I just could die or let someone else be happy by setting my own self free." Only a deep, dark retreat into the self can result in that perspective, and Mould's songs for Husker Du had demonstrated many times at this point in an accomplished career that the band never feared going to unexplored emotional depths.08of 10
The Call - "I Don't Wanna"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hip-O
Lyrically composed of a lengthy series of declarative sentences regarding how the singer feels, what he wants and doesn't want, and what he's simply not willing to do, this rousing song is a celebration of the self even Walt Whitman might think is excessive. Been's dazzling melodic sense and The Call's balanced employment of synth and guitar help make this tune far more than an exercise in self-obsession.09of 10
Glass Tiger - "Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone"Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI
In the span of the first verse of this Canadian band's gem of a pop song, the mood goes from devotion to simpering insolence, and that kind of bipolar swing is what self-absorption is all about. Even more indicative of this kind of insular world view is the heavy contrast between the narrator's earnest request for his beloved not to forget him, in the face of all evidence that she's already done so. The singer essentially reports, to borrow from an old standard, that "nobody knows the troubles I've seen," and then he complains that not only does he wake up and his beloved isn't there but that she also doesn't care. The rhyme is free, but tears are not included.10of 10
Culture Club - "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin Records
Boy George delivers an unforgettable pitiful puppy plea in this well-known '80s hit from English band Culture Club. Ultimately, the song drowns in teenage girl diary sentiment, but somehow, in the context of this piece of music, that's not even an insult. The dime store poetry actually works. Exhibit A:
In my heart the fire's burning, Choose my colour, Find a star.
Wrapped in sorrow, Words are token, Come inside and catch my tears.